Clay, The Gift That Keeps on Giving

By Jane Voigt

Daniel Island, S.C., April 1, 2014 -- It's a touch warm at Family Circle Cup this afternoon, but nothing these women cannot handle. Yet the clay has presented some complications. 

Like Jelena Jankovic said yesterday, she looks forward to 'getting her slide on' at the first clay-court tournament. But adjustments are necessary.

Number one -- It's slippery, can change with the weather, and requires keen fitness. 

"To transfer to clay is never easy," Daniela Hantuchova said, after defeating home-town girl Shelby Rogers, 75 75. "I feel like I was moving well and using my shots the right way. It didn't work sometimes, but I felt like it was a very good match overall."

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Daniela Hantuchova steps into a forehand in Cincinnati. The green clay of Family Circle Cup presented some problems for her today, but she came from behind to defeat local-favorite Shelby Rogers 75 75. Photo credit tennisclix.com

Daniela, who will be 31 next month, added, "The longer I'm on tour, the shorter it takes to get used to exactly what to expect. It's a sport where you just have to get used to sliding and mentally being patient. More balls are going to come back. But I still have to be aggressive."

Therein lies the conundrum -- patience and aggression. 

Being aggressive on a hard court requires an adjustment to timing a shot. Practice sessions iron out that out quickly. But not so on clay. Timing is a consideration, but the surface is slippery.

"I mean in an ideal world," Hantuchova began, "maybe two, three good weeks of training. Then you know you are ready."

But tour schedules are tight. Tournaments run back-to-back. Hantuchova played Sony Open then flew here for a week of practice. But if the weather goes awry, her preparedness could go flat. Clay absorbs rain and can muddle timing even more. 

"When courts are softer, and we had some rain here coming into this tournament, it makes it a little bit slower," Hantuchova said. "Sliding wise it's still the same."

Hantuchova added that red clay is not much different than the green Har-tru of Family Circle Cup. However, red clay courts no longer mean players make radical adjustments to technique or strategy.

"The courts now, these days in Europe are pretty quick," she began. "It's unlike before where we went to a German tournament, Berlin, Hamburg, where the clay was really heavy. And you take Madrid. It was really fast. Paris is almost like a hard court. So, this [Family Circle Cup courts] is one of the slower courts."

"You have to change it up on clay," she said. "You can't play one dimensional. You have to use different shots, which you have more time to do."

Half the matches played here today have gone three sets. The time on court reflects the speed of the surface and the adjustments players are dealing with. Hantuchova's match went two hours because she came from behind to win. 

With air temperatures in the low 80s and the sun in full force, extended match play calls for keen fitness, too. As we all know, players spend more time in the gym than on practice courts. While they adjust to a ball's bounce and test out their sliding skills, they require more endurance as matches go longer. 

Venus Williams defeated an improved Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, according to Williams, 63 06 75. Time for the match, 2 hours and 18 minutes. That victory for Venus had more to do with experience, stamina, and Charleston.

"It feels so American here," Venus said, smiling. "It's amazing. The crowd really boosts you up. Their whole heart is in it. It obviously makes me want to give more, too. Here, it's like, okay, I've gotta win for myself and for the fans as well."

Family Circle Cup is 41 years old, this year. Players love coming here in part because, as Venus said, the fans are welcoming. 

"It's the food," Hantuchova said, smiling. She was joking, in part, but let's face it fresh fish, banana pudding, and Low Country specialities like shrimp and grits do draw ohhs and ahhs. 

"It's a more relaxed atmosphere after Miami," Hantuchova said. "It's all craziness [there] and you are doing one thing after another. Here it's more about tennis and making the transition to clay really quickly. And me, personally, I just love the city. I feel like I'm basically home in Europe. It's a calm and relaxing place. It's easy to be focused on tennis."

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013